A plan to simplify approvals for new storefront businesses to help revive pandemic-devastated Evanston shopping districts won Plan Commission approval this week.
The proposal would let city staff act on many special use requests, rather than requiring approvals from the Zoning Board of Appeals and the City Council. Those reviews can often delay the opening of a new business by three to six months.
Paul Zalmezak, the city’s economic development manager, said 20 percent of downtown storefronts are now vacant and that the current regulations discourage business owners from opening here.
The rule changes would let staff approve requests for fast casual restaurants, indoor commercial recreation facilities, ground floor offices and financial institutions.
Zalmezak suggested there’s no need for the current process when — as happened recently on Emerson Street — one carry-out pizza place replaces another. In another example, he said a new operator for the vacant Symphony’s restaurant on Central Street will have to have to delay opening by at least 90 days waiting for city approvals.
“This is an opportunity to be directly responsive to business owners,” Zalmezak said.
Ben Kadish, one of the owners of Evanston Benson LLC, which owns the properties on the southeast corner of Benson Avenue and Clark Street, said he had eight commercial tenants there a year ago but has lost five of them during the pandemic. And, he says, most of the remaining tenants are either not paying rent or paying only a fraction of it.
He said that in late February a woman approached him about renting one of the vacant spaces for her insurance agency. She hoped to open by April 1, but since an office would require special use approval, that target date was impossible to meet.
“If you wanted to open a business in Evanston, would you wait six months to open, or go some place else?” Kadish asked.
Another speaker at the meeting worried that the city might end up with just banks and offices on some blocks, reducing the foot traffic needed to generate retail sales.
But Katherine Gotsick, executive director of the Main Dempster Mile, said, “Honestly I would welcome a bank. They’re crucial for small businesses that do cash deposits daily and need change and things like that.
She said her shopping district used to have five banks and is now down to just one.
Annie Coakley, executive director of Downtown Evanston, said providing an easier path to open new businesses “will help us get out of this economic downturn.”
Zoning Administrator Melissa Klotz said that under the new procedure — while adjoining property owners would no longer receive postcard notices of special use requests — the requests would be reviewed at public meetings of the city’s Design and Project Review Committee and residents could sign up for email alerts about that committee’s agenda items each week.
Plan Commissioner George Halik said, “I trust the staff. A high percentage of the time we go along with staff recommendations.” But he had concerns that formal language for the proposed ordinance change had not been presented to the committee.
In the end the commission voted Wednesday night to approve the changes, subject to having the chair and vice chair review the new ordinance language before it goes before City Council for final approval.